Spotlight on BAE and Covid-19

Local Friends have spoken out about speculation that BAE Systems may have contributed to Barrow-in-Furness have one of the highest Covid-19 rates

Local Quakers have spoken out about speculation that the arms manufacturer BAE Systems in Cumbria may have contributed towards the town of Barrow-in-Furness having had one of the UK’s highest Covid-19 rates. Around 1,500 people continued to work for BAE Systems after lockdown, prompting 500 people to sign a petition asking for all ‘non-safety or security-critical’ staff to be sent home.

BAE also had one of the earliest outbreaks when two workers tested positive with Covid-19 on 14 March. The site was temporarily shut down with a deep clean of some buildings. In April a BAE contractor died from the illness. BAE has ‘strongly rejected’ the claims, saying it followed government guidance and more than 4,500 employees have been working from home. 

However, some Quaker sources have pointed out that BAE Systems employ temporary contract workers who are housed on a short-term basis, which could make the town particularly vulnerable to an outbreak.

Bill Shaw, clerk of Swarthmoor Meeting, the nearest Quaker Meeting, told the Friend: ‘It’s all speculation and no one will ever know for sure, but the numbers are difficult to explain. Blackpool has a high infection rate, as does Cumbria, but both are tourist destinations.’ Barrow-in-Furness, he said, is not, and is ‘more out of the way’ on a peninsula. 

For several days in May the town had the highest infection rate in the UK. Around 552 people in Barrow had been infected with Covid-19, according to government figures on 12 May, a rate of 882.2 for every 100,000 people, compared to the English average of 244.5.

Bill Shaw said: ‘BAE has said that there were 1,500 going in each day [during lockdown] out of almost 10,000 employees, but it didn’t say if these were contractors or not. It seems to me interesting that making weapons of mass destruction through a pandemic is seen as essential, but we have learnt it’s PPE that is really essential.’

Around 9,500 people work at the shipyards in Barrow-in-Furness where BAE Systems builds its nuclear submarines.

Quaker artist Jill Gibbon, who gains entry into arms fairs by masquerading as an arms dealer, tweeted about BAE: ‘What use are nukes in a pandemic?’

The director of public health for Cumbria, Colin Cox, said the high infection rate could in part be explained by the fact more people in Barrow have been tested than in other places.

BAE Systems said: ‘We strongly reject the suggestion that we have adversely contributed to the coronavirus infection rate in the Barrow area. Contrary to any assertion otherwise, we have followed public health guidance and required employees who were displaying symptoms, or had come into contact with someone who was displaying symptoms, to self-isolate at home while introducing preventative measures to protect the safety of our employees.

‘We took the decision to send the vast majority of our employees home before the government announced the national lockdown. Since then, more than 4,500 employees have been working from home. We have restricted access on our site with fewer than one in five back at work and have put in place a number of measures to adhere to safety and social distancing guidelines. We continue to work closely with local authorities as we play our part in tackling this public health emergency.’

Bill Shaw added that the town could face a difficult recovery period. ‘We are a small struggling Meeting so can’t get involved so much in local issues. In general talk, we still uphold the Peace Testimony and regret the fact that we are next door to one of the country’s biggest military factories, and it continues to be a concern, but there hasn’t been a peace campaign for several years.’

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